Interview with Balli Kaur Jaswal, novelist behind Lizard on the Wall

Ng Yi-Sheng

September 06, 2017

Balli 1

SIFA’s closing event this year is Lizard on the Wall, a new 60-minute film directed by K Rajagopal and produced by Fran Borgia of Akanga Film Asia, to be screened at The Projector on Saturday at midnight!

The film’s inspired by Inheritance, a 2013 novel by Balli Kaur Jaswal chronicling the lives of a Sikh Singaporean family from the 1970s to 90s. One of the key characters is Amrit, a young woman whose wedding is cancelled due to the discovery of her mental health issues. But because Punjabi weddings are visually spectacular, Rajagopal decided to alter the story, centering the action on that wedding that never happens.

If you held a ticket for The O.P.E.N., you may well have been an extra for this movie, bussed in to the set sometime between 30 June and 2 July to perform as a wedding guest. You may also have met Balli herself there. :)

I wasn’t present, but I happen to be doing a Creative Writing PhD in the same class as her at NTU. (She’s doing the course while seven and a half months pregnant!) So I grabbed her for an interview.

If you’re curious about her work, you can find out more about her novels here: Inheritance, Sugarbread and Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. (The last of these was published by Harper Collins!)

Inheritance 2

NYS: When were you first approached about the prospect of turning Inheritance into a film?

BKJ: Late last year, around October, I think. Dan Koh had read the novel and put it in Fran Borgia’s hands, and said, “You really should adapt this.” And Fran contacted me and said, “I’d like to do this.”

So I went into the studio to meet them. We talked about the story and what they might like to do. Raja and I talked a lot about films and books we liked in common, like Monsoon Wedding and The God of Small Things .

At the time they didn’t know how much funding they were going to get from SIFA yet, so it was just a get-to-know-you thing, and of course it was subject to me providing permission and negotiating the sale of rights. But I was familiar with their work and I was happy to see what they would do with it.

NYS: Were you involved in the creative process after that?

BKJ: Not very much. We got in touch over the rights, I met with them once or twice more, and then it was really in their hands. Once you sell the rights to your work you have to let go of it.

I was quite happy. Their concept was quite unique, with the whole bussing in the extras and having a theatre experience where the extras were spectators to the action, but also involved in the filming of the wedding scene. They coordinated all of that, and a couple of days before, they told me the secret location: it’s at this place. So I was like, “Cool!”, and I was there.

NYS: Where was it?

BKJ: It was a huge black and white bungalow at Ridout Road in Dempsey. I didn’t know there were black and whites like this. It was so big: the grounds themselves, you had to walk quite a distance to get to the house from the gate. It had a pool and everything.

There are all these British houses that no-one rents, because just he monthly maintenance is thousands of dollars. The Land Authority is quite happy to lend them out for films, because no one lives in them.

NYS: Were you there for the whole filming period?

BKJ: It was Friday Saturday Sunday, and I was there Friday and Sunday. The house was all decked out and the set was amazing. So every time I went there, it was like I was actually going to a wedding. I felt very underdressed!

The first storey was a proper set like a wedding, and the second floor was more surreal, like an exhibition with different rooms for different characters—they weren’t literal interpretations. There was Gurdev’s room, Amrit’s room, Narain’s room, the alcove in the hallway, and the extras who came in were given a tour of that part of the house, so they got to know the characters.

Lizard on the Wall

From here

NYS: And what was it like being there?

BKJ: It was really fun! The first night I actually went on my own and got to meet the cast, who were really lovely and very unified, a really nice community of their own. So that was nice: getting to know them, seeing Raja directing as well. In terms of the sequence of events, that was also the first day of the wedding, before things really start to unravel, so there’s a sense of anticipation.

When I came home, I told my husband how cool the wedding set was, and he said, “I want to go!” So on Sunday he came along, and at first we were both going to sit in the sidelines, but he got caught up in all the festivity and got into wardrobe and put on a nice kurta and danced. There’s a scene of him acting as an extra, which I got to watch from Raja’s chair. Nepotism at its finest!

I remember I found it really invigorating, the whole process. Because there was so much left to do: things go overtime, things don’t go as scheduled. At that time I was really kind of struggling with, grappling with how much I had to write by the deadline for my next novel.

And to be a part of another artist’s process and see that things don’t go according to plan and that’s OK. Raja was always so positive, and gave such great pep talks to his cast. It made me realise it gets done: I need to have a bit more faith.

I felt much more inspired to write after being part of someone else’s process. I think I would’ve felt that way even if it wasn’t a film based on my novel. Just to take a break from my writing to see someone else made art in a different way, which to me was completely new.

Balli 2

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  • 2017